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Storm Clouds Ahead for Obama

The president faces multiple challenges as he preps his reelection campaign.

Worries: President has a few.(Getty Images/Alex Wong)

UPDATE: A previous online version of this story referred to several battleground-state polls. Those references have been removed.

Since the beginning of the year, the conventional wisdom has held that President Obama looks like the favorite to win reelection.

The Republican presidential field is weak. Obama is triangulating, dealing with the GOP on tax and spending cuts.


His approval ratings hover close to 50 percent, and Republicans just unveiled a budget plan that would revamp Medicare, risking a backlash with seniors, a key GOP bloc.

But beneath the surface, there are red flags his reelection team faces—fundamental weaknesses that suggest a close presidential race and raise questions about Obama’s long-term political health.

1. Growing economic pessimism. Despite the unemployment rate slowly improving, there are signs Americans are increasingly downbeat about the economy. The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed that only 21 percent of respondents said they were better off economically than one year ago, with 31 percent saying things have gotten worse. The poll found as many voters thought the country was headed on the wrong track than at any other time in Obama’s presidency. The poll of 1,000 adults was conducted March 31 to April 4, and has a 3-point error margin.

A separate Pew Research Center poll of 1,507 adults, conducted March 30-April 3, finds a similarly pessimistic view of the future. The proportion of Americans rating the current economic conditions as poor has jumped 11 points since February, from 42 percent to 53 percent.  A 54 percent majority believes it will take a “long time before the economy recovers”—up 12 points in the last two months. Needless to say, these aren’t the signs of a public anticipating Morning in America.

And other economic indicators outside of the unemployment rate suggest storm clouds.  The unemployment rate reduction hasn’t been accompanied by any increase in labor force participation. According to Brookings Institution economist Gary Burtless, the number of long-term unemployed has been steadily increasing over the past year. Income continues to stagnate—real hourly wages have fallen 1 percent from October 2010 to February 2011. Rising gas prices aren’t helping.

Meanwhile, Obama is counting on similar turnout and enthusiasm from his base of young voters, Hispanics, and African-Americans again in 2012.  The recession has hit those groups the hardest, and it will be a challenge for Obama’s re-election team to come close to the record support and turnout that fueled his victory in 2008.

So it’s hard to see how Obama improves his standing markedly, particularly on a campaign that will likely center on the economy.

Also from National Journal …

Gallery: Notable Deaths of 2011

2. Issues fought on GOP turf. It was striking to see Obama strategist David Plouffe hit the Sunday talk shows proclaiming a message of deficit reduction—praising the significant cuts in the fiscal 2011 spending deal that Democrats previously called draconian. But it’s a sign Republicans have won the argument over spending. Two years after signing the stimulus, Obama has accepted the GOP’s austerity agenda.

For a party in control of the White House and the Senate, it was a surprisingly weak return—with the Democrats’ main accomplishment preventing policy riders from being attached to a six-month bill.

It’s the latest capitulation for the White House, since it caved to GOP demands on tax cuts during the lame duck. The administration’s struggles selling its signature health care law are indicative of the challenges Obama faces in selling his policies.

Democrats might have the advantage in the latest budget battle, with Republicans proposing to alter the way Medicare is delivered.

Democratic officials are eagerly awaiting this week’s vote on the GOP budget, believing it could be costly for Republicans, much like former President George W. Bush’s plan to partially privatize Social Security. Obama outlines his own deficit reduction plan Wednesday, one that involves changing entitlements but also includes tax hikes on the rich.

But it’s far from a guarantee the political burden will fall entirely on Republicans. When Republicans took their lumps on Social Security and Democrats spent significant political capital on health care, it was when they controlled both the White House and Congress—and bore the consequences of overreach. Health care reform was already law when Republicans ran against it. Any future fiscal reforms will be the product of compromise and negotiation.

And it’s harder to score political points when the president is proposing his own entitlement cuts, and is revisiting raising taxes on the wealthy—an issue the party retreated from during last year’s lame duck. Voters will be choosing between higher taxes or fewer benefits—neither a particularly palatable option.

3. Poll problems. Even as Republican congressional leaders and governors are making frontal attacks on entitlements and pension programs, there’s no sign Obama is gaining any traction with groups disproportionately affected by these positions.

While Republican strategists fear the cuts could do irreparable harm to gains the party made last year with seniors and blue-collar voters, Obama isn’t making up any ground among them. The latest Pew poll found Obama’s approval rating stuck at a dismal 34 percent among white women without a college education, and is 35 percent among white men without a college education. Meanwhile, Obama has some work to do in winning over seniors. His approval rating among white seniors is at 38 percent in the Pew poll.

Nineteen months is a lifetime in politics, and these numbers will move as the presidential campaign gets under way. But given the fundamental challenges the president faces with the economy, winning over constituencies resistant to his message, and taking the lead in advancing his own agenda, Republicans might not need a flawless challenger to give Obama a serious run for his money.

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